Cyborg Bugs and Glow-in-the-Dark Cats

By Dov Fox

That’s what CNN called yesterday’s report with science writer Emily Anthes about her new book, Frankenstein’s Cat, which examines “genetically modified this, or cloned that,” as she put it, or “creatures that combine electronic bits and biological ones.” Wrestling with the ethics of such cases, Anthes explains, “reveals that we’re deeply conflicted about the role that animals play in our lives.” Yet she laments that this tension supplies no satisfying answers to underlying questions like “Is this unnatural?” and would “that make it wrong?”

Our confusion lies, I’ve suggested, in the failure of animal welfare discourse to capture the sense many of us share that animal “nature” has value apart from its happiness or well-being. If its welfare were all that mattered, then we shouldn’t be troubled by animals designed to experience less frustration living in the conditions for which they’re destined. Consider three examples of designer animals that are currently being developed: cows with stunted sentience, less apprehensive of going off to slaughter; chickens that lack nesting instincts, more satisfied to a life confined to laying eggs in a battery cage; and pigs without legs, better suited for a sedentary existence as ham and bacon in potentia.

The dominance of the animal welfare view obscures a reason to resist such creations: to preserve animal integrity. Cows should be able to fear danger, pigs to play in the mud, and chickens to peck about in the sand, according to this view, less because those capacities make the animals happy than because they are integral to an intrinsically valuable way of being. To deprive a cow of its responsiveness, or a pig of its limbs, or a chicken of its proclivity for pecking would, on this account, violate its essential “cowness” or “pigness” or “chickenness,” even if those animals were perfectly content in their designated roles.

For thoughts on why animal nature may indeed be worth preserving, and implications for conventional breeding (e.g., dogs for companionship, or horses for racing), and what all of this  means for designer children and embryonic stem cell research, check out the article.

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About Dov Fox

Dov Fox is Professor of Law and founding Faculty Director of the Center for Health Law Policy and Bioethics at the University of San Diego School of Law. He has published dozens of articles in leading journals of law and medical ethics, most recently “Reproductive Negligence” in 117 Columbia Law Review 149 (2017). His current book project, Birth Rights and Wrongs, is under contract with Oxford University Press. His work has been featured in CNN, ABC, NPR, BBC, Reuter’s, Bloomberg, the Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. Fox is a regular columnist for The Huffington Post and contributor to the Bill of Health blog. He also serves on the advisory boards of the American Constitution Society and Appellate Defenders, the non-profit law firm that administers all appointed counsel for indigent defendants in California's Fourth Appellate District. Prior to teaching, Fox served as a law clerk to the Honorable Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He has also worked at the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz; the consulting firm of McKinsey & Company; and the Civil Appellate Staff at the U.S. Department of Justice. Fox was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to attend Oxford University, where he earned his DPhil and then received a Soros Fellowship for New Americans to attend Yale Law School, where he served as projects editor for the Yale Law Journal and all three years was awarded the prize for best student paper in law and the sciences.